In 1539 or 1540, [Bernard] Palissy was shown a white enamelled cup that astonished him, and he began a project to determine the nature of its production. The piece of fine white pottery may have derived from Faenza, Urbino, Saint-Porchaire or even China. In Palissy’s time pottery covered with beautiful white tin-glaze was manufactured throughout Italy, Spain, Germany and the South of France. A man as travelled and as acute as Palissy, however, would have been acquainted with its appearance and properties.
At the neighboring village of La Chapelle-des-Pots, Palissy mastered the rudiments of peasant pottery as it was practised in the 16th century. He may also have learned of manufacture of European tin-enamelled pottery. In his work Palissy produced ceramics using a great many ingredients including tin, lead, iron, steel, antimony, sapphire, copper, sand, saltwort, pearlash, and litharge.
For nearly sixteen years Palissy labored to recreate the pottery that he had seen, working with the utmost diligency but never succeeding. At times he and his family were reduced to poverty; he burned his furniture and even, it is said, the floor boards of his house to feed the fires of his furnaces [italics mine]. Meanwhile, he endured the reproaches of his wife, who, with her little family clamouring for food, evidently regarded her husband’s endeavors as little short of insanity. All these struggles and failures are faithfully recorded by Palissy himself in his autobiography.
Palissy failed to discover the secret of Chinese porcelain, but invented a style of rustic pottery, called “Palissy ware,” for which he is now famous. The pottery is decorated with reliefs mimicking wildlife from Palissy’s native Saintonge marshes, and includes fish, crustaceans, reptiles, ferns and flowers.
In 1542, a peasant revolt against the “gabelle” salt tax in Saintonge brought royal forces, headed by the Duc de Montmorency, near Palissy’s home. The duke was impressed by Palissy’s artistry and commissioned him to build retreats at the Château d’Écouen and Meudon. Palissy’s work there included the construction of wild gardens and ceramic creatures, following a romantic style similar to Italian artists Vasari, Cellini and Michaelangelo, and foreshadowing the baroque.